Qasida Al Burda: Zaytuna College Documentary


What is the Burda? The Burda is basically an Arabic poem celebrating the exalted rank of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. The name of the poem in Arabic is al kawākib al durriyah fi madh khayr al-barriyah, which means celestial lights in praise of the best of creation.

And It's understood basically by the Muslims to be a tribute from a great poet Imām Sharafuddīn Albuṣiri, who was actually a North African, his ancestors were from North Africa of Berber descent. He was born in Egypt, during the Memnon period. And he became very noted for his ability of at praise, and he spent a good deal of his early career praising kings and princes and rulers in Egypt. At a certain point though, he had a very deep spiritual transformation and became a disciple of one of the great scholars and spiritual masters of his age, who was Abūlʿabbas Almursi. And Abūlʿabbas Almursi - there’s a well-known story in which he was once sitting with three great scholars: Imām Albuṣiri, Ibnu ʿAtā'Allâh Al-Iskandarī and ʿIz Ibnu ʿAbdissalām, and he told each one of them that, they, he told Imām Albuṣiri that he, his poetry would gain an acceptance in the world, and he told Ibnu ʿAtā'Allâh that God would give him the gift of wisdom, and he told ʿIz Ibnu ʿAbdissalām that his knowledge would become renowned in the east and the West. And whether that's a apocryphal story or not, as I don't know, but the interesting thing is, is that, the acceptance that was given to this man was deeply related to the spiritual stature that the man had, and that came from his own, his own desire, and, and effort and love of God, and then of the prophet of God.

So basically he, after this successful career at praising these rulers, he actually had a powerful crisis, and went through a period where he was actually paralyzed half of his body. And during that time, he said he decided to write a poem as a way of interceding to God through the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, and he was looking for a cure, and so he wrote this poem the Burda. And it's called the Burda, which means the cloak, because during the time that he wrote the poem, he had a dream and the prophet ṣallallahu ʿalayhi wa sallam came to him in the dream and he heard him recite the Burda, and the Prophet was so pleased with the poem that he actually placed his cloak around Imām Albuṣiri, and when the Imam woke up he found himself completely freed of the paralysis that he'd been afflicted with, and so it was given this honorific title the Burda, Al Burda.

When historians look at the Burda, we very soon realize that what we're dealing with is very probably the most influential and the most popular single poem in the history of any language. There’s simply is no other text from ancient or recent times that has been done into so many languages, not just for some rarefied literary elite, but really for the for the people, and in a way that penetrates to the heart and to the soul of the various peoples that constitute the community, in this case of Islam. And this facts only recently been realized and Burda studies as it were only beginning to get underway, but already we can see the extent to which this single poem has shaped the lives, not just of hundreds of people, as is the case with the poems in in the modern West supposedly such a literate society, but literally of millions. There is no significant traditional Muslim culture anywhere that has not welcomed the Burda, and treated it as an honoured guest, whether in wedding ceremonies, whether in ceremonies of conversion to Islam, whether in calligraphy, if you look at the walls of for instance the Caliph or Palace in Istanbul after the Quran the most popular text on the walls and those beautiful iznik tiles, is the text of the Burda. Whether it be in albums that calligraphers present to patrons or to ʿulamaʾ, whether it be simply the first literary text the children memorize, apart from the Quran and some hadith and some text to fit what they learn is the Burda. And one of the great ways in which the Burda has shaped and uplifted that the soul of Muslims everywhere in the traditional Islamic world, is that its popularity stems from the fact that it responds so directly to the core emotion of the religion which is the maḥabba, the love for the founder of the religion sallallahu ʿalayhi wa sallam.

If religion is to survive and to endure and to flourish, it's no good imposing it on people, it's no good trying to persuade people with abstract, or theological, or philosophical arguments. What they need is to love it, they need to have that huge human capacity for a rich spectrum of emotions, satisfied by the religion that seeks to sit at the core of their identity. And no amount of religion is going to succeed ultimately as a transformative popular vibrant force in society's life, if it's just about ideas, or if it's just about obedience. It has to be about emotion and the core religious emotion always has to be love.

All best of those whose courtyards are sought by secrets of solace, hurrying on swift feet or riding on the backs of trailblazing camels. Oh you are the greatest sign for the discerning the most blessed gift of those desiring gaining. You soared by night from the near sanctuary to the furthest, the way a bright moon moves across the sky enveloped in darkness. You spent the night ascending until you reach the station of two bows lengths or nearer a point of intimacy never before realized nor even dreamed of.

All the previous prophets and messengers gave precedence to you the way a generous host defers to a guest of honour. The fact that it's a matter of loving the Prophet is really the key, the love for the Prophet is not sentimental, it's not you know slavish to it to a sick degree as it often happens in some cases, but in fact the love of the Prophet is the fact of the path itself, the path to Allah, the path to God, the path to the next world is really paved with love of the Prophet sallallahu ʿalayhi wa sallam. In the sense that not only we do we love his person, not only do we love who he was when he was with us, we love also everything he gave us, we love this the minutiae of his behaviour, we love his relationship with all his companions, and that's the very thing that we want to take into our own lives and bring out again in our own relationship to the world, in our lifetime.

And the Burda is certainly is a teaching of that, and an extraordinary and beautiful opening of it. You know we do a prayer on the Prophet, and the prayer on the Prophet is really that that opening in our own hearts and that opening in our own consciousness which is that prophetic consciousness, and that prophetic consciousness is something that is accessible to every creature, every person, and every human with a soul. And the reason we do that prayer is so that that it opens in us. Now the the board that happens to be this extraordinarily complex and beautiful prayer deep deep prayer that reverberates throughout us, it goes all the way from from the man beginning to say I am stuck and faced with my mortality, my hair is getting white and and what have I done, I see my own faults and my own weaknesses and I'm distraught and and in in despair, but the prophet ṣallallahu ʿalayhi wa sallam has come and I am now filled with light and I'm filled with the joy about who he was, and it's this this cure this recognition that the spirit of the Prophet sallallahu ʿalayhi wa sallam is a cure to our own hearts, as it was to about Shaykh Albusiri who was cured by this vision that he had of the Prophet, that the Burda is a result of. And it is so beautiful to see it being done all over the Muslim world, no matter where you are, I was told recently that it's in Russian or rather in Russia, the Muslims there also recite the Burda. I've got a copy of one from Syria, and I know the people that produced this particular version of it have other copies that they know about or have heard about. And the fact is it's something this is common coin in among those with, I won't say just the Sufis but just the people of heart, of of Muslims who love the Prophet very much.

One question of course that frequently arises is to what extent does this very traditional medieval instrument, which inculcates and expresses this most fundamental religious emotion, have a bearing on the situation of present-day Muslims? Is the apparent universal appeal of the Burda now being curtailed by the arrival of very different definitions of Muslim belongingness? But I think the answer to that has to be that let's wait and see. The Burda is now mutating into different languages, unfamiliar languages, it's in English, French, Dutch, German, even in Latin. And Muslim communities that are beginning to define themselves as British or French or Dutch communities are seeking naturally enough to develop literary forms despite this extraordinary diversity of the expressions of the Burda down the Muslim centuries and in every last corner of the Muslim Ummah, Islamic world, the Burda really represents in a very fine way the fundamental principle of all Islamic civilization which is community and diversity.

It's the same poem, the commentaries that are read, for those who really want to see the mechanics of the Arabic prose and the meanings and the doctrinal significance and the historic references that it alludes to. All of that resolves to one crystalline point which is a Quranic commandment. Whenever the Burda is celebrated, it is doing so as a form not only a Dhikr, of remembering Allah Subhānahu wa taʿālā, and celebrating the blessing of prophecy, but also as a form of ʿIbāda insofar as any conformity to a divine commandment is an act of worship, and in this case what is being obeyed is one of the most fundamental of all Quranic Commandments which is delivered in no uncertain terms in one of the best known verses of the Quran and that we hear in sermons on Fridays and in public discourses throughout the traditional Islamic world, which is: ‘Aʿūdhu billahi mina shayṭāni rrajīm, Bismillāhi rraḥmāni rraḥīm, Innallāha wa mala’ikatahu yusallūna ʿala nnabiy, Yā ayyuha lladina ʾāmanū, ṣallū ʿalayhi wa sallimū taslīma, Sadaqa llahu lʿaẓīm. Which means truly Allah himself and his angels send blessings to the prophet. O you who believe send blessings to him and send salutations abundantly. It's in the imperative mood in the in Arabic, this is not an optional extra in religion, it is a fundamental commandment, we have to bless the Prophet. As a corollary, when we best the Prophet, we are rewarded. And the reward is not just otherworldly, but it's this worldly as well. Each time we bless the Prophet, Allah blesses us, and this is also in the hadith.

The Burda basically spread from Egypt all over the Muslim world, but it particularly took root in Morocco, possibly because of the connection between the Imām and the country itself, the Imām being originally from Morocco, but I think more importantly because of the deep love and reverence that the Moroccan people have had not only for the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, but also for his family. So there's been a deep tradition, Morocco is a country that was it was literally founded by a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him: Moulay Idris. And so there's this this deep connection with with the prophetic tree, the prophetic line in Morocco, and the legitimacy even today that the ruling family in Morocco's is based on the king being a Qurayshi, being a Hashimi, being a direct descendant of the Prophet, and and that's understood.

One of the the beauties of the Moroccan Burda tradition is that the Andalusian music which was a very powerful musical form that originated in Persia but was brought ultimately to Spain, and took deep root there, that that tradition when when Spain fell to the Christians, many of these great musicians fled to Morocco, and there arose a tradition in Morocco of this Andalusian singing ,which is is based on this deep understanding of the musical structures called the Maqāmāt, and these these Maqāmāt were used to recite the Burda itself, and and each city developed its own unique way of reciting the Burda, the one that we were fortunate enough in recording is the Fasi tradition, and it's done by a group of Fasi singers who literally from the time they were children began learning the Burda in this tradition, and so in a sense it's really probably almost a thousand years old this singing tradition, not of the Burda but but of this style and the Burda obviously written in in the eighth century, and so Hijra the 13th century, Christian era, so it's written and sung in this extraordinary Andalusian style, and Mohammed Bennis who is is the head of the the Fez singers, he's literally somebody who is dedicated to preserving this tradition, he's teaching children in Fes, he has a small school run without a budget at all, literally, without a budget, I mean this is an act of love, and I’ve known Mohammed Bennis now for several years and and I've just seen the love that he has for this extraordinary tradition of sacred music in Morocco, and keeping it alive, and his own children are part of this, they've memorized the Burda and learned how to sing it in this way.

I wanted a classic design which embraced both tradition and also which reflected the time we live in, after all a CD is a very high-tech medium, so all the different elements of the package, the graphic elements, the photographs, the choice of typefaces for the text, the marbling which we used from Turkish manuscripts, it all had to fit together in a kind of harmonious whole. The recording of the Burda was a real challenge, because for start it's not normally done in its entirety, it's normally divided into two halves and you sing one half one week, the second half in the second week. Secondly, it's not normally done in this very self-conscious situation. The recording studio picks up every cent tiny noise, so coughs and creaking chairs are all picked up, and to get seven or eight men in a studio and to get more to be absolutely silent it's extremely difficult. Mohammed Beniss trained his men extremely well, and they went through the day with birch to(20:39) without a retake, just having to stop to change reels on the recorder.

The Andalusian singing tradition allows for very long stretches of singing, because the Burda is a kind of basis for a whole patchwork of other Qaṣīdas and poems. Now the skill of Mohammed Bennis is in weaving these things together, so for instance it will begin with the Burda though at a fairly low pitch and it's like at the beginning of a railway train all that I think they liken it to the beginning of a fire with the blowing on the embers and it slowly builds up impetus, and then at a certain point it will change into another poem like the Hamzya, another one of his famous poems, in a different meter, and in a different tempo. So the interest is maintained, and then that will stop and it will move into solo singing, each one of the singers has to prove himself as it were with his own particular solo style, which although it's very stunted particular rules still has a personal expression in it. This is what sustains it over like two hours, for the, for the listener and also for the whole momentum for the performers.

This whole project must have taken well over 2 years to produce, and it was miraculous it really happened at all, but then the Burda is often associated with miracles. After all it was translated in California, it was calligraphed in Washington DC, it was sung and recorded in Morocco, it was then mixed and designed and produced in London in Cambridge, it was printed in Istanbul and bound in Ankara, and now we're faced with the major challenge of selling and distributing this throughout the world.

Then you started out penetrating the seven heavens with them in procession behind you, and you their standard-bearer, until you left no space from divine presence for others to obtain, nor any summit for seekers of heights to aspire to. You achieved every station by rightful possession, but dressed by God with exultation when unique subjects in heavenly syntax, in this way you attained the station of arrival veiled from the gaze of onlookers a secret sealed in silence. Thus you gathered every honour without peer and traversed every station in solitude. What pre-eminence you've been entrusted with, past counting are all the blessings granted, glad tidings for us the people of Islam, and we have a pillar of Providence utterly imperishable. You called us to God's obedience when he named you the most eminent of emissaries, we became the noblest of nations.

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